Abigail Firey

title.none: Barbero, Charlemagne: Father of a Continent (Abigail Firey)

identifier.other: baj9928.0510.010 05.10.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Abigail Firey, University of Kentucky,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Barbero, Alessandro. Allen Cameron, trans. Charlemagne: Father of a Continent. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. 426. 29.95 0520239431. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.10.10

Barbero, Alessandro. Allen Cameron, trans. Charlemagne: Father of a Continent. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. 426. 29.95 0520239431. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Abigail Firey
University of Kentucky

Readers might initially be deterred by the Hesiodic cast of this book's title, especially in view of the quantity of historiography that has, ever since the ninth century, with considerable repetition and fulsome praise credited Charlemagne with bringing light to the otherwise dark ages. Ah, but this is a very, very smart book, that embraces the Carolingian myth, qua myth, as a partner, and then dances a very complicated dance to a different place, covering swathes of hitherto untrod floor. The author's flexibility and capacity for innovation, as well as his fine sense of detail, make this book a delight to read: it will serve both specialists and newcomers to the field well.

"Father of a Cont inent" is the English adaptation of the sobriquet an anonymous poet bestowed upon Charlemagne around A.D. 800: rex pater Europae (3). For Barbero (whose title in the original Italian edition was Carlo Magno, Un Padre dell'Europa), the phrase raises the pressing questions for Europeans undergoing the transitions to the European Union: what is Europe? and how has the idea of Europe been shaped? Before entering the historiographic fray, Barbero wittily reminds his audience of the title of a Spoleto conference: "The Birth of Europe and Carolingian Europe: A Link Yet to Be Demonstrated" (3). Barbero brings an important voice to the puzzles of Carolingian Europe: that of an economic historian. His immediate perception of what distinguishes the Carolingian Empire from the Roman Empire is the location of the markets, trade routes, seaports, and resources. That topography is embedded in the political and social structures that secured and supported the ec onomic fortunes of Charlemagne and his more co-operative and well-placed subjects. The link between Carolingian Europe and modern Europe, Barbero proposes, is the economic recovery in the early middle ages that would sustain the development of modern Europe (4). This thesis, however, is lightly delivered and almost incidental to the rich exploration of an epic in which Europe is as present as Charlemagne, and in which we can rediscover why mythic tales are so much fun: what passions, accidents, history, and upheavals determine the destiny of Charlemagne's Europa?

It should be noted that Barbero is also the author of an historical novel ( Bella vita e guerre altrui di Mr. Pyle, gentiluomo, winner of the Strega Prize in 1996), and that he brings to Charlemagne literary craftsmanship of a high order, which for the most part is well-conveyed in translation. He refreshes seemingly familiar landscapes by drawing our attention to particulars often unnoticed, but that supply vivid data and stimulate the imagination. Both his literary sensibilities and enquiry into European identity find expression in the comments on language that thread through the book. Philology, one of medievalists' oldest handmaidens, appears in shining raiment and is wed to Mercury as Barbero uses linguistic evidence to illuminate the complexities of empire-building. Describing the geography of French and German as a reflection of the density of Frankish population distribution in the early middle ages (7), Barbero (following R. Wenskus and H. Thomas) both uses language as a marker of culture and yet also establishes that Carolingian hegemony should not be described in an ethnic framework, for "language had nothing to do with ethnic identity" and any "sense of community was not in fact the product of a shared linguistic identity" (106). Rather, Barbero argues, Frankish supremacy was attained through the creation of a common memory of conquest (106). Barbero rea ds the canon of the Council of Tours in 813 that preaching should be in " rusticam Romanam linguam aut Theotiscam" as indicating that the different linguistic communities of Carolingian Neustria and Austrasia were considered equally Frankish; linguistic particularity did not preclude cultural solidarity.

This argument has important and interesting ramifications in Barbero's hands. First, it is an elegant extension of his thoughtful attention to the scholarly debates over the concept of ethnogenesis so prominent in recent work on late antiquity and the Merovingian period. Indeed, the clarity and judicious presentation of approaches to ethnicity will make Charlemagne a very useful resource for students who need footing on terrain which in the specialised literature is rough and rocky. Barbero not only smooths the path, but also insists (387, bibliographic note; 16, text) that modern theories are wholly modern: we must bear in mind that a Frank or Lombard would bel ieve he was the descendant of invaders, and of Trojans, now a chosen people, and in time would thicken those beliefs with the legend of the Iron King, resisted briefly by the Eater of Bones (38). There were ethnic distinctions "that we would no longer accept" but that "had a distinctness in the imagination of the time." Those distinctions formed part of a new cultural geography perceived by Carolingians, that was noteworthy for its departure from Roman geographies: there was the land of the Franks ( Franchonolant), the land of the non-Frankish indigenous peoples--Celts and Romans ( Walholant), the lands of the Basques ( Vuasconolant), the Bavarians ( Peigirolant, the Lombards ( Lancpartolant) (107-108).

New definitions of identity seem to have elicited new prejudices among Carolingians, and the phenomenon of rejecting Roman heritage (in a curious reversal of the emphasis scholars have traditionally placed on the self-conscious recuperation of Romanitas in the Carolingian Renaissance) seems evident in the pejorative references to Romans, conceived by Carolingian Franks as the vanquished (107). Barbero's concurrence with other recent works of scholarship depicting more or less latent antagonism between Franks and Romans is a useful complement to the evidence and arguments presented by Lawrence Nees in A Tainted Mantle: Hercules and the classical tradition at the Carolingian Court regarding a cultural division between the Romanised regions south of the Loire and the Frankish north. By probing Carolingian perceptions of difference, Barbero shades the Carolingian empire with crucial nuances and distinctions in the experience of that empire in different areas.

Draped over those distinct experiences, however, was the ideology entertained by some Carolingian courtiers of a monolith: Barbero points out that it is in Carolingian texts that the word Europa appears. In the balance and tension of lingu istic and cultural difference and a political and ideological hegemony, Barbero finds Europe, "a new political space, which at the distance of over a thousand years still appears familiar" (114). The geography of newly perceived peoples was but one of a number of superimposed organisations of space, and Barbero is careful to describe the ecclesiastical geography of the metropolitan sees, noting that although they no longer corresponded to the population concentrations or trade routes of the classical period, they had enormous significance as "a kind of summary of the empire... We have no Romans or Germans here, nor is there a place for Franks, Bavarians, or Aquitanians. This is a Christian empire, which is Roman and cannot be anything else, because Rome had been chosen by God as the center of Christ's religion" (109). Barbero's elucidation of a world with apparent contradictions, such as concurrent denigration and elevation of the memory of Rome, of coalescing and dissolving ethnicities, brings us closer to the texture of empire and the hum of Carolingian discourse describing what it might or might not be.

Not all entered willingly into the vision of empire, and Barbero gives due attention to the resistance that was the obverse of Carolingian triumph. The first portion of the book details the military campaigns that resulted in the political dominion that would eventually constitute empire; a later chapter on "The Frankish Military Machine" also serves to keep the military dimension of Charlemagne's imperialism at the fore. In his treatment of the wars against the Saxons, Lombards, Avars and Arabs, Barbero broadens his discussion beyond the political circumstances distinguishing each, and provides descriptions of the military strategies and the impact upon the people inhabiting the regions where Charlemagne's troops were active. In the case of Lombard Italy, we see how the devastation wrought by Charlemagne's "wider vision, which we could right ly define as imperialist" (31) became manifest in famine and poverty, in need so extreme that the slave trade burgeoned. We also see Charlemagne's efforts to address the suffering his invasion caused. Because it was reported to him that the afflicted were selling themselves, their wives, and their children into slavery and their property at fire-sale prices, Charlemagne issued a law to be applied "where we or our army has passed" that nullified transfers of property and persons and deeds of sale negotiated because of hunger; donations to churches were subject to investigation (36). Barbero suggests that as well as being simply necessary, these measures were politically calculated to divide the common people from the landowners profitting from their misery, and thus furthered Charlemagne's subjection of the Lombard nobility implicated in organised rebellion, whom he also replaced systematically with Frankish and Alemannian aristocracy and bishops.

It is with such seamless in tegration of the political, military, economic, legal, and social actions and consequences that Barbero revives what is best in excellent historical narration: an understanding of the motives, pain, and struggles that shape human experience. The brutal history of the Saxon wars--scorched earth, mass deportations, the decapitation of 4,500 in a single day--and the extraordinary energies, personnel, and engineering devoted to the war against the Avars are not abstractions of imperial power, but the reminders of terrible realities. Barbero's appreciation of human loss is sharp, and he brings to us shafts of memories, as when he quotes the Russian medieval chronicler: "The Avars were large, heavily built, and of fierce temperament, and God wiped them out, they all died and not even one of them survived. To this day Russians have an expression: 'They have been scattered like the Avar, leaving neither descendants nor heirs.'" Yet his sympathy is subject to his loyalty to veracity, and he takes pains to assert that the collapse of the Avar khanate cannot be attributed solely to Charlemagne's "merciless" war; he also declines to present the baptism of the Saxons as the culminating atrocity of the Saxon wars, arguing that the conversion of the Saxons "was never simply a matter of forced baptism at sword point" (242). While noting that the mass baptisms recorded by chroniclers often occurred in the aftermath of military defeat, Barbero situates the relationship between military activity and conversion in a larger missionary context, pointing to the seventy or eighty missionaries dispatched from the abbey of Fulda alone in the two years between 775 and 777. He also draws in the voices of protest, such as Alcuin's, who wrote that "you can persuade a man to believe, but you cannot force him. You may even be able to force him to be baptized, but this will not help to instill the faith within him." Rather than leaving the Saxon experience of imperially-promot ed religion and (also criticised by Alcuin as suggesting an opportunistic impetus for war) ecclesiastical tithes as the defining moment, Barbero takes Alcuin's critique as a platform for changed policies in the wars against the Avars and also in new legislation for Saxony.

Alcuin is yet another object of a fresh gaze, amusingly taken as a prime example of the benefits of royal benefices awarded in return for service (184-185). Of the five abbeys granted to Alcuin, St. Martin at Tours had possessions so vast "it was said that Alcuin could travel throughout the empire and always be able to take a rest in one of his properties" and Archbishop Elipandus of Toledo charged that "twenty thousand slaves had to work to keep him in such luxury" (216). As elsewhere, Barbero pursues a point others might let lie, and reports that Alcuin, an advocate of the virtue of poverty, in old age "began to be disturbed by this contradiction, and he regretted his greed, fearing that it might endang er his soul. To put this right, he invested some of his gold in prayers, mainly through large donations to churches in his native England" (217).

The strategy of following the money serves well in Barbero's forays into ecclesiastical history. Scholars will likely find of greatest interest his clear expositions of the economies of monastic estates and, albeit only briefly treated, the question of the role of the clergy in government. The two issues are related, for what Barbero neatly calls "the inherent ambiguity of [the Empire's] institutions" meant that bishops and abbots had business to conduct that was well beyond the purview of their ecclesiastical offices. The abbot of Fontenelle had to supervise the commerce of the ports on the English Channel, including that of the lively market of Quentovic, and collect customs duties for Charlemagne (170). Barbero also argues that church properties were "another category of public assets, whose revenues were entirely at [Charlemagne's] disposal" (178). This point receives useful elaboration in Barbero's discussion of the ways in which ecclesiastical resources were directed to the crown through levies of estates' produce (3,200 gallons of wine from St.-Denis), the census collected from tenants, and the supply of goods and personnel to support the army (181-184).

The ecclesiastical component is just a part of Barbero's depiction of an integrated, complex, and organised economy. Chapter Twelve, "A New Economy," is a clear and compelling presentation of data and analysis that reverses the historiographic tradition of a closed economy, short on surplus and long on misery, and replaces it with a system of large estates regularly producing surpluses for trade, especially between the Loire and the Rhine, for the support of the northern and western trade routes. The shift from Mediterranean trade did not, in this model, entail any diminution in the volume of trade. The energy of the new economy Ba rbero describes crackles in his rich exposition, and even readers who fear economic history will find this chapter a romp (with the possible exception of the few paragraphs on crop yield statistics). Just as Barbero's attention to the intimate detail of what language or dialects people spoke brings us as close to those who have left no written record as we may come, so does his use of archeological findings supply the tangible aspects of domestic conditions that bring life to the long vanished. Under his guidance, we view their gardens, their kitchens, their fields, their purses and carts.

Two qualities of his discussion distinguish it from other available writing on "Carolingian Life": the depth and specificity (the capacity of grain silos, the size of houses, mortality statistics, coin weights), and the larger framework of analysis in which information is placed. All the data coheres in a rich survey of an economy dominated by large landholders who could organise speciali sed production on their various estates (282), not necessarily adjacent (276) and whose goods could be transported and traded even in the absence of major urban centers (284). Consumption, production, and investment could be watched, calculated, and managed to the best advantage (284-6). The "rational" management of the economy was largely the work of the landholders (in particular, the corporate management of the monasteries), but there was royal intervention as well. Not only consumer protection and a uniform monetary system concerned the emperor, but also food rationing. Barbero attains transparency in his explanation of production and circulation, and avoids a static model by including important discussions of the interventions Charlemagne made in the severe famines of 792-793 and 805-806. In a Christian empire, famine relief required prayer (prescribed quite precisely in royal capitularies), fasting, and alms--the latter two forming a convenient pair. All subjects had an obligation to feed some starving person, and landholders had special obligations to look after those under their patronage, to sell their grain at a low price, and not to export it (299).

Barbero does not romanticise the prosperity or charity of the Carolingian economic system. Rivalling the sophistication of his chapter on the economy is the subsequent one, "Patronage and Servitude." Again Barbero brings clarity to discussion of a murky and complex problem: the transition in the European labour force from slavery to serfdom. While Barbero does not note in his bibliography the work of Pierre Bonnaissie, he does work from the research of the 1990s that brought significant revival and revision to the account of early medieval slavery. Equipped with statistics from large estates, such as that of the monastery of Santa Giulia in Brescia, where of the six thousand labourers on the manorial farm and smallholdings, three thousand were slaves, Barbero is able to treat slavery as a significant aspect of economic and social organisation. In keeping with much recent scholarship, Barbero moves away from juridical definitions for his interpretation of the conditions in which slaves, freed slaves, and the free operated. This departure allows him to elaborate upon the similarities of their lot, rather than the distinctions, and to conclude that "in practice freed slaves found themselves just as subservient as they had previously been." The consequences of equal conditions in practice, if not in law, were that eventually the distinction faded from the written record too, and servus became "used without distinction for both slaves and manumitted slaves, not to mention other categories of rural dependent labourers, such as the coloni who were personally free peasants but undertook that they and their descendants alike would live permanently on a smallholding" (330). Barbero's deft application of a linguistic explanation may not satisfy all engage d in the slave-and-serf debates, but the substance of his argument accords with the analyses now preferred by historians of late antiquity (as he notes in his annotated bibliography), although he has shifted the chronology of developments to a later period. In terms of what is available in English to beginning students, the chapter on social structure is exceptionally rich, thoughtful, and interesting.

Charlemagne: Father of a Continent is a book that would be excellent for classroom use, and will also be important to graduate students, not least for its elegant display of how a range of sources--biblical exegesis, charters, polyptychs, chronicles, letters, artifacts--can be synthesised to produce both rich and balanced analysis. Barbero sticks close to his sources, and quotes from them well. The peculiarity that may baffle non-Italian readers repeatedly is his use of the nineteenth-century author Alessandro Manzoni, in particular Manzoni's play Adelchi, about the son of the Lombard king Desiderius, as an interpretative foil. While Manzoni is part of the canon of Italian education, and Barbero's engagement with his rendition of Carolingian history doubtless enriched the original Carlo Magno for his Italian audience, it is a pity that when published in English, not even a helpful little summation of the plot and tenor of the play was added. On the other hand, the annotated bibliographies supplied for each chapter are fully international, wonderfully up-to-date, and often the site of further useful discussion of matters of interest to specialists.

And where is Charlemagne, the ostensible subject of the book, in all of this? He is there, nicely endowed with 74.9 inches of height (118), language (German and Latin--119), personality (although the little excursus into cyclothymics seems a somewhat bizarre venture into the problematic field of psychohistory), family, mandates, leadership, transformation as he ages, and dignity in death. But the subtlety, even subversion, of Barbero's choice of biography as his historiographic mode is part of the delight of this book. Like Hesiod, Barbero has recognised that a mythic figure is always really but a shell, providing the writer with glorious opportunities to write about much more important things.